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Catching Up With Don Williams (2004)

Coaxed off his farm to record again, Don is still giving his heart to fans.

Don Williams waited over five years before releasing his new album, My Heart to You. But the velvety-voiced singer admits that had it been up to him, it would’ve been a lot longer.

“My manager just couldn’t let it go,” says Don with a grin. “He really wanted me to make another album.” Don’s reluctance stems from his last record, 1998’s I Turn the Page. Shortly after he finished the CD, his record label closed. “It left such a sour taste in my mouth,” he admits. “We put an incredible amount of time, emotion and energy into that album. And before we even got it out, they were going belly up. The album never had a chance. Rather than getting into that again, I would just as soon not even do one.”

But his manager’s persistence paid off”—Don recorded My Heart to You last spring, using his seasoned road band to back him in the studio. The CD features re-recordings of previous album cuts, along with Don’s laid-back versions of rock ballads like Bette Midler’s “The Rose” and Eric Clapton’s 1978 hit “Wonderful Tonight.”

“I guess I’m just dumb,” says Don. “Eric played that song for me before he recorded it, and it’s taken me ’til now to finally record it. I’ve always loved that song.”

It’s the love of a good song that’s helped Don have an amazing number of hits”—45 Top 10s, including 17 No. 1s. For three decades, the man”—who earned the nickname of Gentle Giant because of his large frame and low baritone voice”—practically owned the airwaves, beginning with his first hit in 1974, “I Wouldn’t Want to Live If You Didn’t Love Me.” Many other songs, destined to become classics, followed, including 1977’s “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend,” 1978’s “Tulsa Time,” 1979’s “It Must Be Love,” 1980’s “I Believe in You,” 1981’s “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” (later covered by Lee Ann Womack) and 1990’s “Back in My Younger Days.”

Don quickly tips his hat to those who helped forge his career”—the songwriters. “The songs they’ve offered me make me as proud as anything I’ve done or anything that’s happened to me.”

Closer to home, Don’s proud of his wife, Joy, of 44 years, their two sons, Gary and Tim, and 4 grandkids.

These days Don keeps a low profile on his farm near Clarksville, Tenn., but he stays busy. “On a farm, there’s never any end to, ’This needs fixing and that needs fixing.’ But I enjoy fishing, though I’ve done pitifully little of it the last few years. On rare occasions, I might get out and hunt a little bit.”

Though his classic Stetson hat has become a staple of his trademark look, it’s not something he sports when he’s hanging out at home. “If I have any head gear on,” he says, “it’s usually a ball cap.”

Even without his Stetson, he still gets recognized”—not that he asks for it. “I get so into being at home sometimes, that if I go into the hardware store and somebody approaches me, sometimes it just really freaks me out, because I’m so not into that.”

Don hasn’t had much of a chance to be recognized not wearing his hat lately. For the last four months he’s been touring nonstop throughout the nation and overseas”—including Australia, Ireland, Scotland and England. And there’s no letting up this summer and fall.

“We’re probably gonna have one of the busiest years this year that we’ve had for some time,” he says. “We’re gonna do somewhere between 70 and 80 dates. And that’s a lot for me. I didn’t do any more than that when I was right up at the pinnacle of it all. It’s surprising to me that I have just about the same size crowds now that I had 25 years ago!”

And Don’s learned, the hard way, to give those crowds what they want to hear”—his hits. “I’ve always felt like it might be a bit unfair,” he says graciously, “to use that time to try to promote something when I know there are songs people are very familiar with that they’d much rather hear. I made a big mistake one year. I’d just done a new album, and I let everybody talk me into performing the whole album at a show in Memphis. And I’ve never had so much flak in my life. I had never done anything like that before and I said, ’I’ll never do that again.’ Because I really did feel like I cheated the fans.”

Don has fans in the most unlikely places. “My music is really big in some of the areas of the world that are the most distressed, where the people are really struggling, like India, Africa and Northern Ireland,” he says. “I guess really it’s just a feeling”—and people have let me know”—that my music has helped them. That’s the most rewarding.

“It’s amazing,” smiles Don. “I’ve always been very concerned about wearing out my welcome. But it’s incredible to me the number of young people that are at the shows. When we play places where I can really see the audience, I just can’t believe the young people that are there.

“And they know all of the songs. That just blows my mind.”

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